Chutes & Ladders Startup Model

The chutes and ladders startup model is my framework for helping founders understand the stages and sequence of creating a startup. Nearly every aspect of startup creation falls into these categories.

While there are many business frameworks out there, many of them try to be so comprehensive that it’s difficult to know what to focus on. Furthermore, the startup journey is unique from business in general in that it needs to be leaner, scrappier, and faster.

The chutes & ladders startup model is my approach at simplifying great complexity into the barebone essential steps that every founder should be focused on when getting their business off the ground.

Founders start on the bottom level (audience) and work their way toward the top. If you’re looking for a handy mnemonic to remember the order by, try out “Ascend Past Perilous Mini Slides”. You’re welcome 😉.

Level 1: Audience

The first step of any startup is not building the product or even identifying the problem - rather it’s determining who you’re going to serve.

This needs to be a very specific niche, not a general group of people.

This also needs to be a group of people you can relatively easily talk to as you’ll need their feedback as you test and build your product or service.

And the gold standard is when this audience is already looking to you as a leader because they are followers of the podcast, club, or group that you are leading.

Once you have your audience identified and narrowed down to the niche you want to focus on, it’s time to climb the ladder to the next stage - deeply understanding their problem.

📝 Activities related to the audience stage
Audience Map: An excersize to determine what audiences make sense to focus on.

Level 2: Problem

Having a clear problem statement that you are obsessed with is critical to ensuring you stay pointed the right direction. You have to fall in love with the problem, not the solution.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming you understand the problem however. This is where you get to start interviewing your audience with open-ended questions to discover what the actual problem is.

And while difficult, avoid trying to make interview responses fit what you want to build. It’s easy to selectively pick and choose what points you focus on from the feedback. Be sure you’re detached enough from your idea (and often it’s best to not even have an idea yet) to be able to let the data speak for itself.

📝 Activities related to the problem stage
Persona Target: Once you deeply understand your target customer and their problem, it can be helpful to build a persona target. This clearly shows who your primary persona is so you stay focused on him or her.
🛝 Sliding back down to audience
If you find the type of people you're interviewing don't have a problem you're interested in solving, it's time to rethink your audience. Recently I was working on an idea that would help company executives get greater clarity into their data. However, I realized the problem I wanted to solve was related to the underlying querying system (i.e. something technical users would be more interested in) and so restarted the project focused on engineers instead of executives.

Level 3: Prototype

With your target customer and their problem clearly defined, it’s time to start building your prototype. This is where you get to dream with all the creativity you can muster and put something together to inspire others on what that idea looks like.

Keep in mind that a prototype is not an initial working version (that is an MVP). A prototype is designed to cast vision, not to be functional. Using tools like Figma (for software), cardboard and tape (for hardware), and images (for services), you should be able to build your prototype in under 24 hours, regardless of your industry.

For many initiatives, building multiple prototypes at once that tackle the problem in very different ways is helpful. It’s easy to get locked into one way of solving a problem and this intentional divergent thinking can widen your creative lens.

The goal of your prototype - whether you’ve built a single prototype or multiple versions - is to get it in front of your chosen audience and receive feedback. Ask good questions and, based on the feedback, adjust the prototype and go back to your audience with the updated version.

And if you need a hand getting in front of your audience, here’s some helpful steps to consider.

This may take four, five, or twenty revisions. Keep adjusting it until when you meet with your audience, you’re consistently seeing them not just understand it but get excited to be able to use it once it’s built. Once that’s true, you’re ready to climb up to the MVP.

📝 Activities related to the prototype stage
10 Prototypes in 5 Minutes: Take 5 minutes to create as many divergent ideas as possible.
🛝 Sliding back down to problem
If you're finding that people aren't excited about any of the prototypes your producing, it's possible that you're chasing after a problem that people either don't have or isn't significant enough for them to need solved. If your prototype isn't inspiring them now, your marketing won't later, and it's time to slide back down to reconsider the problem you're trying to solve.

Level 4: MVP

MVP stands for minimum viable product. It’s the least amount of work you can do to deliver the core of the solution you’re providing. You should ruthlessly boil down your product’s scope until you find the minimum you can build that solves the customer’s problem.

While you should be able to build it quickly, building your MVP will be measured in weeks or months (compared to the mere hours that it should take you to build your prototype).

And if you’re not a little embarrased to release your MVP because of how limited it is in features, you’ve waited too long.

One word of caution: An MVP does not mean the product is buggy or semi-defective. Your MVP should do what it does well. The “minimum” part focuses on scope, not behavior.

Once you have your MVP in place, you want to get it in front of your audience as quickly as possible. You’re looking for feedback both qualitatively (forms, surveys, etc) and at this point, quantitatively (views, sign ups, purchases revenue, etc.).

You’ll almost certainly find some things that don’t work well, make some pivots, add some parts to the MVP that you didn’t think were needed, and de-emphasize aspects you thought were essential. It’s not uncommon to spend months at this stage and sometimes years.

And in the end, if everything breaks your way, you’ve listened to your customers well, your timing is right, and the wind is at your back, you’ll find yourself grabbing ahold of that elusive gem all founders chase after: product-market fit.

🛝 Sliding back down to prototype
This is a painful level to slide down from because at the MVP stage, you've typically invested significant time and resources into building your product or service. Nonetheless, you shouldn't let that blind you. If you're finding the audience you have relationships with already isn't using (and paying for) what you've built, it's time to slide down to reconsider your approach (i.e. your prototype) or potentially even further to reconsider the problem statement or audience.

Level 5: Scale

Congratulations! If you’ve reached this stage you’ve made it further than the vast majority of founders who struggle to ever find product-market fit.

At this point, you need to make a big shift. You need to change from focusing on your product or service to focusing on marketing. This is harder than it sounds. Up until now you’ve been relentlessly focused on pivoting and refining your product, believing that if you get the product right, you’ll find success.

And up until this stage, that was true.

But now, success no longer rests on perfecting your product. In fact, in many markets the best product doesn’t win. Instead, the best marketed product wins.

Now that you have product-market fit, you have a new mission: product-channel fit.

Product-channel fit is the quest to find the marketing channel or channels that allows you to most effectively and efficiently distribute your product to the rest of your audience. For some, this is online advertising, for others its in-person conferences, and for others its an aggerssive sales team (see a complete list of marketing channels here).

There is no formula here. Instead, you need to find what works best to reach your audience.

But once you find an effective channel, it’s time to hold on tight. You’re like the dog who actually caught the mail truck.

You understand your customer, you understand their problem, you’ve built a product that solves that problem and you have an effective way to get in front of that customer.

You’ve made it to the rocketship 🚀 - the finish line for every startup and the launchpad of every company. Now the next stage of your voyage begins!

🛝 There is no slide back to MVP
If you've truly achieved product-market fit, there is no slide back down to MVP. Your product is right. You don't need to reconsider it, at least for the immediate future. Instead, all of your efforts should be focused on what marketing channel gets you in front of your target audience.